Another Frame, Another India
This past week an Indian movie — Baahubali 2 — beat a major Hollywood production ( ‘The Circle,’ starring superstar Tom Hanks) at the American box office sweepstakes. This surprised many American film analysts who were now suddenly seeking to explain what this Indian “action-fantasy” movie was all about. Slowly there seems to be a recognition that Baahubali’s creators have successfully tailored a familiar genre — think of Jet Li’s ‘The Hero’ or Zack Snyder’s ‘300’— to drape an Indian narrative. Like those films, Baahubali relies on a seductive totalizing view of an imagined ‘medieval’ India that is as assured of its balletic violence and melodramatic revelations as is required by its genre as any ‘real’ representation of modern India is expected to be marked by uncertainty, grayness, and amorality of intentions. This latter India was also on display at the New York City’s ‘Rubin Museum of Arts’ . Smaller, provisional, and unencumbered.
This was at an exhibition (“India in Full Frame”) of black-and-white photographs that the French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson had shot in India during the apocalyptic days of the Partition and after. In a roundabout way, Cartier-Bresson had influenced a generation of Indian cinema in ways that is now largely forgotten. Satyajit Ray, for instance, generously acknowledged that not only was he inspired by Cartier-Bresson’s photographs of rural Mexico, but also that he had instructed his 21-year old cinematographer, Subrata Mitra, to ensure that the “texture” of Pather Panchali was similar to it. At the exhibition, we intuit what Ray meant. Cartier-Bresson preferred natural light to capture what he called “decisive action” amidst a fluxion of movements, producing an effect of reality that is also an artifice.
Nowhere does this approach acquire an historical grandeur than when he trains his camera on Mahatma Gandhi who sat, with the melancholy of a desecrated temple, despite all the frenzy of his followers around him. In one of the photos, three of the four women in the frame, also seated near Gandhi, watch his hands scribble on a writing pad, while the fourth woman looks up, almost reluctantly. He is the Sun, around which, like planets, their lives swirled in ellipsoid orbits, submitting it to the gravity of his presence and distortion by the singularity of his convictions. It is not hard to sense that one has seen this composition elsewhere. Perhaps among the innumerable medieval European paintings, which depict Christ surrounded by his apostles. But unlike a troubled but beautiful Christ in those images, in here, the old man is unmistakeably human. A pointillistic explosion of grey on a 78-year old’s bald pate suggests that he has had an haircut recently. His near-toothless mouth and mood slump into a resolve, one that could be mistaken for sullenness, perhaps precipitated by the apocalyptic violence of the Partition. It was sometime between 3 and 4p.m. on January 30th, 1948 when Cartier-Bresson clicked that photo.
Cartier-Bresson, who was born in Normandy in France in 1908, had met Gandhi for the first time only a few hours earlier before many of his photos were taken. Like Gandhi, Cartier-Bresson was an unambitious student. He had failed his Baccalaureate examinations three times, much to the disappointment of his father, who then wisely freed him from paternal expectations and let him become a painter. He fell in with the Surrealists that included Aragon and Breton but before long he began to see past their “facile despairs” and willingness to play “backyard Hamlets”. Eventually, the imperium of life came rushing in the form of marriage to a Javanese dancer, Ratna Mohini which forced Cartier-Bresson to set up a home and sign on to odd jobs including as a photographer-propagandist for a Communist evening daily. Throughout his life, Cartier-Bresson seems to have been marked by an urge to be on his own, to avoid the easy comforts of belonging and groupthink. Despite this isolationist streak, he co-founded the influential photography cooperative called Magnum with the great photographer Robert Capa and others. He had traveled widely and lived with artists in Africa, Mexico, and America before arriving in Delhi to shoot Gandhi, like many others, but only with his Leica.
After their introductions, while viewing Cartier-Bresson’s works, Gandhi was drawn to one photograph and asked, “What is the meaning of this photograph?” With a photojournalist’s scrupulousness, Cartier-Bresson explained the where and the how. The man in photo was the poet Paul Claudel, who was walking by a horse-driven hearse, in the Rhone-Alpes region of south-eastern France. This, of course, was not the ‘meaning’ of the photo. Gandhi, with his hard won talent to distill truth from reality, summarized the photo’s portent to its photographer: “death, death, death”. At 4.45 p.m, Cartier-Bresson took leave of Gandhi. By 5 p.m. Gandhi was killed. It was January 30th, 1948.
In the days that followed, Cartier-Bresson became the world’s eyes as India laid Gandhi to rest. His photographs in Life magazine (headlined: “Gandhi Joins Hindu Immortals”) included a memorable image of Jawaharlal Nehru, engulfed in darkness and yet illuminated by a flare, announcing that the light had gone out of “our lives”. The funeral scenes of Gandhi exploded with opportunities for Cartier-Bresson’s style to flourish. Innumerable, anonymous faces pressed into his lens, as the photographer and his subjects struggled to find elbow room to watch the passing cortege of man whose emaciated arms moved an Empire. Once the funeral of Gandhi was over, Cartier-Bresson immersed himself in India. From the last days of Ramana Maharshi at Tiruvannamalai, the early experiments of ISRO in Thiruvananthapuram, the wasteful extravaganzas of royal families across Rajasthan, the lost worlds of the river Sabarmati in Ahmedabad that alternated as large sari dyeing workshop, the many lives spent awaiting the return of Sheikh Abdullah in Kashmir, the transmogrification of Indira Gandhi into something beyond a political colossus — Cartier Bresson saw and documented India with the discreet intimacy of a well-mannered thief.
The India of 1948 that Cartier-Bresson shot seems familiar in form but is radically different in content. In parts, this estrangement comes from the all too natural distance imposed by the separation of decades between 1948 and 2017. But what shocks still is that India of the 1940s was an astonishingly poor country. Marked by a kind of poverty indistinguishable from a permanent malaise that permeates widely and reduces entire generations into empty shells. It is only in seeing these images that one understands the radicalism of Gandhi’s faith that held his fellow Indians, amidst those environs of decline and despair, to a moral standard that still remains the high-watermark of political ambitions. Today our entertainment may extol a rich medieval India and its muscular hero, but the moral ambitions encoded in our everyday politics have atrophied from disuse.